In Liberia, Former Child Soldiers Trade Guns for Soccer Balls; Get Coached in Life by Their Idol, Football Star George Weah
MONROVIA, 23 April 2004 – Less than a week after turning over their weapons to UN peacekeepers, hundreds of boys in a remote Liberian town declared today they would not wage war anymore, then lined up to shake hands and talk with their idol, global football star and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador George Weah.
The scene, played out at an interim care center in the town of Gbarnga, about 60 miles (100 km) northeast of Monrovia, was one more small but hopeful sign that Liberia is turning a critical corner away from conflict and toward a hopeful future.
Weah, visiting his homeland for the second time this year on behalf of UNICEF, flew an hour by chopper to meet hundreds of boys who have disarmed in the past few days as Liberia’s “Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation, and Reintegration” program has gotten underway. Thousands of former soldiers, both children and adults, have already entered the program, and optimism is running high.
“You and me are here to rebuild our country,” Weah declared to more than 100 boys at the interim care center. “The things you have done in the past were not your mistake, they were our mistake,” he said. “But working together we can build a great future. Let’s seize this opportunity to be peaceful and heal our land.”
At three similar stops across Liberia today, Weah – known here as “the King” – thrilled thousands of his countrymen with a message of hard work and hope. “I am a sportsman,” he said. “What made me successful was discipline, effort, commitment, and the chance to live in peaceful countries. All of us in Liberia now have that same chance, and we must not let it slip away.”
A 17-year-old former soldier at a UNICEF–supported care center outside Monrovia sang a song for Weah that reflected the change he has experienced since January, when he was one of the first to disarm in a pilot demobilization program. “I don’t want to fight no more,” he sang under a pavilion where Weah met with some 80 boys. “We don’t want to see blood on our land.”
UNICEF’s Representative in Liberia, Angela Kearney, said the change in the children was amazing. “Just a few months ago these boys were toughened by war and abuse. Now they’re interested in going to school and learning a trade. It’s just incredible what’s been achieved here in just 12 weeks.”
In his first stop of the day, at the care center for former child soldiers in Gbarnga, Weah was joined by the United Nations Special Representative in Liberia, Jacques Paul Klein, who told the children they are “heroes.”
“We love you,” he said. “We want you to have a home, we want you to be loved, we want you to be safe.” Klein joined Weah in presenting the center – run by the Christian Children’s Fund – with recreation equipment and soccer balls provided by UNICEF, then looked on as Weah donned a jersey and joined the youngsters on a dusty, makeshift pitch.
He told the former combatants they could become anything they wanted if they discipline themselves, get an education, and stay focused on peace. “You can be farmers, carpenters, merchants, doctors, teachers – anything,” he said. “Who knows, one of you could even become a great sports star.” This drew cheers.
One boy thanked Weah “for fighting for our rights.” Another thanked him for always coming back to Liberia to help in times of need.
Weah was welcomed as a hero everywhere he went, and by day’s end was visibly moved by the courage of the children he had met, and the strength and devotion of the adults who are caring for them.
“I am feeling a bit overwhelmed,” he said at a rousing reception by thousands of his fellow Liberians at a camp for displaced people located 30 minutes outside Monrovia. “We all have a lot to do to rebuild our country and rebuild our families. But I know we can get there. You give all of us a great sense of optimism and purpose. Let’s go forward together in peace.”
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World renowned as a football star, Mr. Weah has worked on behalf of UNICEF since 1994. He was appointed as a global Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF in 1997, and travels throughout the year to help raise awareness and funds in support of UNICEF’s life-saving work for children.
On Friday he will visit two more centers where Liberian children have been demobilized from fighting forces in the last few days.
For further information, please contact:
Alfred Ironside, UNICEF Media, NY, 646 247 2975
23 April 2004: UNICEF's Representative in Liberia Angela Kearney describes George Weah's visit to UNICEF correspondent Francis Mead.
Audio clip ([mp3]; right-click to download)